Huntress by Malinda Lo, out today from Little, Brown, is a prequel to her first novel, Ash (reviewed here by Elizabeth Bear), and is set in that world’s distant past. Both books are works of lesbian YA spec-fic, which puts them high on my list of “interesting reads.” I was eager to receive a copy of Huntress. The flap copy describes it as such:
Nature is out of balance in the human world. The sun hasn’t shone in years, and crops are failing… The people’s survival hangs in the balance. To solve the crisis, the oracle stones are cast, and Kaede and Taisin, two seventeen-year-old girls, are picked to go on a dangerous and unheard-of journey to Tanlili, the city of the Fairy Queen.
As a story it stands alone easily and in fact feels very different from Ash—partially because Ash is based in European folklore, while Huntress is beautifully immersed in Chinese legend and culture. A reader won’t have any problem jumping right in if they haven’t read Ash (though I would heartily recommend it).
I always like it when an author does something different between books: it makes each new story that much more of a treat, to wonder what will happen in its pages. Ash was a lovely story with a gripping romance and great play with gender and affection. Huntress takes a different tack and focuses on ideas of loyalty, duty, and personal connection—while there is a romance, it is a much more subtle one, with different bonds. (Also, it’s a quest fantasy, which gives it a thoroughly different story-shape.)
If you were having trouble guessing from the title, this is a book about strong girls. Taisin and Kaede are the lead characters, each central to the action and the development of the plot. Between them, they wield magic, knives, arrows and strategy to make a difficult crossing to the fairy city of Tanlili. They are the driving force of the novel, not the quest-plot, which creates some interesting narrative dissonance.
I found their relationship and its slow, cautious, flickering growth to be a beautiful illustration of girls falling in love despite duty, despite their knowledge of what lies ahead of them, and despite the lives their families wish for them back home. Setting their story over a long quest is a perfect choice, as it forces them into close contact for a long while—especially once they begin losing the other members of the party to wolves and ghosts in the Wood. (The Wood is a familiar locale from Ash, which I was glad to see again. It has a bit of a life of its own in these books.)
The narrative dissonance comes in where it does in most quest fantasies: the first 4/5ths of the book are drudging along the trail, hungry and cold and in danger, and then suddenly there’s a rapid final battle, climax and dénouement all pushed together at the end. I would have liked more time devoted to those bits of the story, but at the same time, I think it’s just a “virtue” of the quest narrative as a whole and not a fault of Lo’s writing.
The very last bit of the ending is fulfilling in an odd way: when it comes to love or duty, Kaede and Taisin choose duty. Taisin decides to be a sage and remain celibate for life; Kaede chooses to become the rider between the fairy land and the human. While it might seem odd for me to praise a lesbian narrative that ends in separation—after all, there are way too many of those—it’s really not. You see, if there’s one thing I dislike in a story more than anything else, it’s “love conquers all.” I like realism. The fact that their love isn’t eternal, that they don’t give up their lives for it, is real. Also, to add to that: the ending doesn’t take away from the love they had or will continue to have for each other. I think many romances, YA especially, have a tendency to insist on happily-ever-after—and for teenagers growing into lives of their own, this is highly unlikely. The best ending might be a separation in good faith and in love, where the two people get to grow into adults in their chosen fields.
So, that’s what happens with Kaede and Taisin. I deeply respected and enjoyed that choice for the ending; it was a bucking of the genre conventions and I adore the book for that.
The love-story is so well-wrought, I’d like to come back to it for a moment.
There are questions of destiny woven into the romance. After all, Taisin is potentially predisposed to love Kaede because of her vision at the beginning of the book. But, how could she know if that’s how it works? Either way, she does fall for Kaede, and Kaede for her. Their relationship is understated in the best way. There are no emotional outbursts or explosions or over-the-top drama, because these are two trained, strong young women who can handle themselves like adults even in the face of previously undiscovered passion. The breakfast after they’ve spent the night together is a nice scene that captures so much of the tenderness and uncertainty of their relationship.
And, you know what, I love seeing the relationship of two young women treated as perfectly normal and right. It’s not a big deal. They simply are Kaede and Taisin, and they are together. Their genders are not central to the question. For a young queer girl reading this book, I can imagine how great that would be to see: these two strong, independent, capable girls, who love and are loved, having adventures together.
If I had one technical critique, it would be the baffling use of POV-jumps to outside characters’ heads. They pop up here and there—a jolt into Con’s thoughts, a flicker into this person’s or that person’s—and it is nothing but jarring, especially as not a one of them added anything necessary to the narrative. The head-jumping, especially thick in the first half, is distracting, possibly because it’s so difficult for any writer to manage in any situation. It leaves some of the narrative feeling clumsy and over-explained, as well as necessitating some re-reading to see when we’d switched unannounced from Kaede or Taisin’s thoughts to someone else’s for a paragraph or two.
Despite that, Huntress is a good read. It’s fast, certainly, and the developing relationship draws the reader through the quest more than the action does—which I believe is the intention. It’s about action, yes, but it’s more about Kaede and Taisin as people. There are also moments of gorgeous, lush prose that are rather breath-taking. Lo has a talent for beautiful descriptions of both people and places. Aside from its queer content, I particularly enjoy the fact that Huntress is a book that pulls directly from Chinese literary culture—the Book of Changes plays a constant role in shaping the story—and that there is a visibly Asian girl on the cover, in a pose of strength, with that bright script above her head proclaiming Huntress.
Overall, Huntress is an engaging book that contributes quite a lot to the field of YA spec-fic in its lovely depiction of queer girls of color having their own adventures, making their own decisions and experiencing real love.